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“If You Can Fall Asleep, in a Movie, it Means that the Movie Often Works:” Legendary DP Christopher Doyle on Winning the Pierre Angenieux ExcelLens in Cinematography Award

Cannes Angénieux Tribute to Christopher Doyle, Photo: ©Pauline Maillet

This year at the Cannes Film Festival, Christopher Doyle became the most recent cinematographer to be graced with the Pierre Angenieux ExcelLens In Cinematography Award, a prize given for a DP’s impact on the history of world cinema. Sponsored by the renowned lens maker, this year’s “trophy” was an Angénieux Optimo 15-40 zoom lens specially engraved with Doyle’s name.

Born in Sydney in 1952, Doyle left his homeland as a teenager to begin an odyssey in Asia, where he has predominantly worked. He had a number of jobs — from oil drilling to cow herding — before his photographs caught the eye of Edward Yang, who asked him to lens his movie That Day, On the Beach, in 1983.

Despite not going to film school, or receiving any formal training, Doyle has created an inimitable visual style. His cinema makes remarkable use of visual blur and slow motion to create unique dream-like states.

He is famed for his collaborations with Wong Kar-wai. Few people talk of In the Mood For Love, Happy Together or Chungking Express without mentioning Doyle, and since the two stopped working together following the long 2046 shoot, it’s arguable that Wong Kar-wai lost his mojo.

Doyle, who is based in Hong Kong, considers himself Asian. He has an Asian name, Dou Ho-Fung, for when he works in Asia; for his forays into English-language cinema, such as his work on Gus Van Sant’s Psycho or Paranoid Park, he uses the Doyle moniker.

He also has a reputation as a bit of a mad man with a liking for drink. He once called himself the “Keith Richards of cinema,” as if the designation was a badge of honor. But one thing is for sure: once that camera starts rolling, Doyle’s eye becomes “the magic source.”

Filmmaker: What does it mean for you to win this prize and be so honored at Cannes?

Doyle: What do you mean “win” this prize? I paid so many people under the table, for so many years. But what can I say about the award? What is a prize? Yes, recognition, of course — “Thank you.” But it’s also a kind of kick in the butt.

Filmmaker: Why?

Doyle: Because you have to do something with it! First of all, I’m number five; this is the fifth time they’ve given the prize. I’m the first Asian to win the prize. So it’s a kick in the butt because they are also going to give me a lens. It’s the best prize I’ve ever had. With other prizes, what do you do with them? You can put your Oscar or Golden Horse or whatnot on the mantelpiece or under the table. I actually have to use this prize. Isn’t that beautiful! They are actually giving you something that is functioning. In other words, they are saying, “Don’t take yourself too seriously, take the prize, move on, and do something special with it.” I think that’s really beautiful.

Filmmaker: Have you any idea what you’re going to use the lens for?

Doyle: 3D porn. I have a plan for it. I think of all the people in the world that could make really good 3D porn, I’m the one. [laughs]

Filmmaker: Clearly you don’t want to take yourself too seriously! The prize is a recognition of your oeuvre, and when people think Chris Doyle, they also always think of your work with Wong Kar-wai.

Doyle: I know. But, what, I made, seven, eight, maybe nine films with Wong Kar-wai, but I’ve also made 90 other films. The work we did together, it was what it was, and it has some resonance for some people. I don’t want to be disparaging about anybody, but what I did since then is also another journey. What the prize does — and us talking now, the only thing it does — is give us access, and access is the thing that a certain kind of films lack. You don’t have access if you’re from Cambodia and making a 16mm film in the suburbs of your home village, etc. Also, the way in which films are being distributed now gives us access. That is why I think it’s fantastic that someone like me can represent a certain energy, and the kids all go outside and say, “Well if he can do it, anybody can do it.” Look how crazy I am, look how fucked up I am. Everyone has an iPhone now, you can make a film with an iPhone, I do so all the time. It liberates us from the idea of film schools and the hierarchy of the studio system and the so-called step-by-step process that means you have to go from assistant to whatever. For me, that is what this prize represents.

Filmmaker: You created something unique, which is a signature style. People recognise a Christopher Doyle frame almost instantly.

Doyle: Isn’t it weird? I don’t know why, because I never studied film. Why do you think that is? I can’t judge. Hopefully it’s integrity — again, without patting myself on the back. Hopefully it’s because it comes from the heart. I come from literature, actually. I love books. I read more often than I ever go to the cinema. So I think that perhaps the idea of ideas, words transformed into images, the idea [of the image] given light, the beauty of a woman reflected in the surface of water — all those things are ephemeral, but those moments are what cinema is about. It’s about moving images. It’s called “movies.” And I really believe we should be making moving images. Moving images means people have space to move. The way in which we respond or like them or share this moment with them is moving, so it’s a pun.

Filmmaker: You have an incredible ability to shoot reverie. Somehow when I watch your films I think it’s like seeing my dreams and imagination on screen.

Doyle: Tilda Swinton had this fantastic speech once upon a time, where she talks about going to the cinema with her husband, or her lover, or her boyfriend — I forget which, which is wonderful; Tilda is beautiful in her eclectic relationship with men — and he fell asleep. And she said that the sleeping man beside her is the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. Film is like a dream, so if you can fall asleep in the movie, which I always do, it means that a movie often works. Films should approach the status of a dream. It should take you into a space which is calm and tranquil and yet have associations that you’ve never had before. I really believe that. I think film is exactly what we should connect with.

Filmmaker: Is it harder to shoot dreams with digital cameras?

Doyle: It’s hard to shoot anything with any camera. For me, when I began, I noticed that the camera doesn’t see as the eye sees. So what do you do to compensate for that? Most people learn how to use the camera. No. Why don’t we instead teach the camera to look how we dream? I think that is an even more beautiful challenge.

Filmmaker: Was that challenge more difficult when you started out, when you had to wait for your dailies to come back from the lab? Did you like that wait, the not knowing?

Doyle: I liked the disparity. For example, when you are with the grader — or what they call the colorist now, I hate that term — the person is there looking at the footage and says, “Well what you see now, once it goes through the printing process it will be a little more green.” I love that, the random factors. This sense of anticipation, what you put in, has a certain authenticity, but what is going to come out has a look of its own. I think this is the big challenge now. I work so often with younger people, and they treat the film likes it’s a commercial. I don’t want to see a Big Mac in the middle of my screen. It’s weird. They are so obsessed with perfection. One: perfection doesn’t exist. Two: the imperfections of an image are what give it energy. Like, look at your beard — you should have shaved a little bit over here. It’s the same thing. You’re working with your beard everyday, and occasionally you say, “Oh shit I have to trim it.” Life has to be like that, and a film has to be like that, and the real danger at the moment is that we can do anything, but when there is nothing to say, there is still nothing. If it doesn’t add anything, why would you do it? This is an interesting space that we are in. People say, “Oh, there is a cable in the edge of the frame,” and I respond, “Well, aren’t you watching the actors?” There is no need to stamp out imperfection.

You look at a film like Lion, which should be a very emotional film, but there is a cut every two seconds. What have they done? Why? You know why, because they all come from commercial filmmaking. They all come from advertising. I want to see this person walk through this space, not 15 different shots of this person. First of all it’s a waste of time, secondly it distracts my emotions, thirdly it’s just for the kids who have no more time for anything but Instagram. So they are not going to watch the film anyway, don’t you realise?

Filmmaker: The flip side of us living in an Instagram generation is that more people are shooting things then ever before.

Doyle: I think it’s fantastic. So why should I be asking people to pay me money to make a film unless I’m better than average. It’s a great impetus to rethink and review and calibrate oneself. It’s great. Plus, you know, people now do a landscape image and then a portrait. A five-year-old is doing this, it’s fantastic. So number one, people are becoming more and more visually astute. Hopefully we are moving away from the word, the script as the base, and we are moving on to moving pictures. Hopefully. Secondly for me, it’s great. If I’m not doing a great job, or if I’m not articulating something special, then why should I exist? You don’t need me. You have Facebook. You have your own camera. So for me it’s fantastically liberating.

Filmmaker: And what do you think of them awarding your body of work….?

Doyle: I’m not sure. I think that they are rewarding my wonderful lifestyle, and we need a beer.

Filmmaker: Is there any particular moment, or something in one of the films you’ve made, that you’ve captured, which excites you particularly?

Doyle: Yes. The next one. It is no question whatsoever that the next film is the best film. It has to be like that. For example, I don’t live except in film. Fortunately, I’m making films most of the time. Almost every day of my life. It’s about this exchange in energy. It’s not about, yes, one or two images in my life that I think possibly resonate with some people, but if they don’t take me somewhere further than there is no point. I really believe that it has to be that way. When you are making a film you can’t sleep at night because the thing keeps on rolling in your head. It doesn’t stop. You know you can do better. Wong Kar-wai always asked me, “Is that all you can do, Chris?” I think it’s the most important question one can ask yourself: “Is that all you can do?” And sometimes you say, “Yes,” because I’ve been working for 24 hours, and I’ve not had a beer in a week and I’m really tired. “Yes that’s all I can do.” Or you say, “Hold on,” you step back and say, “Yes you’re right, maybe the light on your face is not good enough. Maybe I can do better.” And we always do. I think the real artists, filmmakers, any kind of artist, you have to ask yourself that question. Sometimes that is all you can do, but maybe 10 years later, it’s not all you can do.

Filmmaker: As you say, you are the first Asian to win the prize, what does that mean for you to have worked in Asia, predominantly, in your career?

Doyle: Well are you asking Christopher Doyle, or Dou Ho-Fung? I’m very proud of this person called Dou Ho-Fung, although he doesn’t exist. He doesn’t have parents, he doesn’t have an ID card, he doesn’t have anything, but he’s giving me the space in which to grow. He has done stuff with Chinese people, in Chinese, which has given me the distance to understand what we are really about, which is that give and take between subjectivity and objectivity, between being totally involved in something and yet having enough distance to be critical of one’s self, which is what art is all about. You have to go and paint and then step back and see what you have done.

Filmmaker: Do you see Dou Ho-Fung as an alter-ego or as part of the same coin as Christopher Doyle?

Doyle: What’s the Werner Herzog film about Klaus Kinski, My Best Fiend? I think he’s my best fiend. (laughs) It really helps, because then you have a distance from the bullshit. I’ve got a prize that puts me up with Vilmos Zsigmond and Roger Deakins, and what an honor that is, and yet it’s only a prize. You can’t believe that it means that you’re the greatest cinematographer in the world this year. You have to be humble.

Duo Ho-Fung takes the piss out of Christopher Doyle all the time. Dou Ho-Fung thinks that Christopher Doyle is just using him. (laughs) I’ve done some interviews between the two of them, and it’s fun. There is a huge freedom that I have that comes from the fact that I am not what I look like. Even now a lot of people know me in China, and a lot of people don’t know me, because they know the name, so I think that is liberating. Again, don’t take it too seriously. It’s only an award. It’s a fantastic and beautiful award, but it’s not about me, it’s about something bigger. Can we obtain something bigger? In other words, we don’t know. I made the films, and for you, perhaps they mean something. You have to remove yourself. You have to be really engaged, so it’s something that matters to you at the moment, but then what it matters to other people you have no control of. Some people think In the Mood for Love is one of the greatest films every made, but we didn’t think so at the time. At the time, I was just wondering, when do we finish for the day?

Filmmaker: You have started to shoot films as a director. How different is that for you?

Doyle:It’s the same — it’s just a different hat. I’ve done five feature films as a director. The great pleasure is that it’s kind of what we are talking about. If you are true to what you are, it doesn’t matter how you do it. I really believe that if we make a film with integrity, with good intentions, with care, with love the audience will feel that. The story wouldn’t matter.

Filmmaker: Who are cinematographers coming up that you admire?

Doyle:Apart from me? What! I don’t know any cinematographers. I know friends who happen to be cinematographers. I know Roger Deakins, Anthony Dod Mantle, Vilmos.

Filmmaker: Let me rephrase it, which film have you watched recently that you were impressed with the aesthetics?

Doyle: I don’t watch films.

Filmmaker: Why not?

Doyle: Because, I see the people behind the films. I don’t see the stories, I just see the people behind the films. That’s why I have to work harder after this award, to be a really good guy.

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